KATSE, Lesotho (BP)--Death and funerals. Prayer for the dying and their families. More death.
It's a way of life for the people known as Basotho who live in the African nation of Lesotho.
"They think HIV/AIDS is just one more way to die," says John Younker, a short-term missionary serving in Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa. "When you meet a person in Lesotho, or you meet a person in my village, chances are they have AIDS, or chances are they're HIV-positive."
The nurse at the local clinic estimates more than 400 people out of roughly 750 in the village are HIV-positive, says Younker, who serves in Lesotho through the Georgia Baptist Convention's collegiate ministries in partnership with the International Mission Board.
"They live such a hard life that if you test positive for HIV, it's not a life-shattering, a life-shaking event because , 'Well, I'm going to die in the mines' or 'I'm going to die falling off a horse' or 'I'm going to get in a car accident' or you're going to die of something else," he says.
"Why not AIDS?" asks Drew Hooks, Younker's teammate, also from Georgia.
In this area, someone dies of AIDS every week.
Younker says some of his Basotho friends purposely contract HIV/AIDS because they know their families will get help from the government or an aid organization. Sometimes this sacrifice is all that will keep family members alive for one more year.
In the surrounding villages, more than 65 percent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS, IMB missionary Alan Dial says. Most will be dead within the next 18 months. That knowledge brings a sense of urgency.
"I know a person sitting there might not be here next week," Babs Dial, Alan's wife, says. Along with her husband, she works to spread the stories of Jesus as quickly as she can before there is another death. "I gather them; he tells them about Jesus," she says.
When people are too sick to walk any farther to hear Alan tell stories of Jesus, Babs gently shoulders their weight to help them the rest of the way.
"There is always someone sick," she says. "... All I can do is pray for them and share about Christ."
She tells of numerous friends who have died from tuberculosis and pneumonia, complications brought on by AIDS.
"Twenty-five percent of the Basotho children are HIV/AIDS orphans," Alan says. Even though most families have very little, they try to absorb these children into their homes, sharing food and clothes.
But life is hard, and it's not uncommon to see a child in a blizzard wrapped in nothing more than a towel.
Roughly 12,000 of these children have HIV themselves.
Alan believes the Basotho people are dying off. A people of more than 2 million, approximately 270,000 Basotho have the virus and about 50 people die every day.
The first known case of AIDS in Lesotho was in 1986. By the early 2000s, the government had declared it a national pandemic.
"The hardest thing for me is to watch the Basotho die day in and day out without being able to get to them ," Alan says. "Statistically, if nothing changes in Lesotho, the Basotho will cease to exist as a people in less than 26 years."
Some of the Basotho villages are tucked into the mountain ranges, hidden by deep valleys and ravines. The Dials hire guides and rent mountain ponies, sometimes traveling entire days to get to the villages. Pitching tents to sleep in, they spend as many days as they can telling Bible stories.
The Basotho want to know about Jesus, the Dials say. Often some will run after them as they leave the village, asking for one more story.
With tears in her eyes and a loving smile, "Mema Khotso" ("mother of peace"), as Babs is known, leans over a dying man. She prays with him, knowing he doesn't have long to live. Thin, with skin just hanging on his bones, he is in the final stages of HIV/AIDS. Lying on a tarp in the warmth of the sun, he asks Jesus into his heart.
"It can be discouraging when so many die," she says. "But it's also an opportunity to give the Gospel."
"What they really need is a saving relationship with Jesus Christ so they can know what it means to live and not what it means to die," Younker says, "because everyone is on the path to death here."
Jace A. Williams writes for the Baptist Press international bureau. To read more about the Dials and their love for the Basotho, visit prayforthebasotho.org.
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